The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Cobden, Richard (1804-1865)

Richard Cobden is best remembered for his partnership with John Bright in heading the movement in Britain to repeal the tariff on imported grain, known as the Corn Laws. Cobden also was a dedicated advocate of international peace and an uncompromising opponent of war. He was born at Dunford, in Heyshott, near Midhurst, Sussex. When Richard was 10 years old, his father was forced to sell his farm, and the family was reduced to straitened circumstances. However, his son went on to make a small fortune in the relatively risky calico-printing business in Manchester. In May 1840,Cobden married Kate Williams, who bore him a son who predeceased him and five daughters who survived him. He never enjoyed robust health, and in April 1865 died peacefully in London with his wife, his daughter Nelly, and his best friend, John Bright, at his bedside. Although he was a member of the House of Commons for 22 years, he refused higher office and remained a backbencher.

The Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association was organized in September 1838, and its successor, the Anti-Corn Law League, in March 1839, to seek repeal of the onerous duties on imported grain. This tax kept domestic prices high for the benefit of those who owned land, who thereby received much higher agricultural rents. However, this tariff impoverished consumers, particularly those poor households, for whom bread was a principal part of their diet. Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Charles Pelham Villiers became the league’s most prominent spokesmen.

After 7 years of assiduous organization and unrelenting agitation both inside and outside Parliament, the league was finally successful in its campaign to repeal the “bread tax” and so deny the “breadstealers” further ill-gotten gains. On January 27, 1846, Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, announced that henceforth all grain from British colonies would be admitted upon the payment of a nominal duty, and foreign wheat would pay a much reduced duty on a sliding scale. All existing tariffs on corn were to terminate on February 1, 1849, and thereafter wheat, oats, and barley were to be subject to a nominal duty of one shilling a quarter.

As a consequence of this victory, in July 1846, the league council met to wind up its affairs. Cobden moved the formal resolution to dissolve the organizations, and Bright seconded it. Subsequently, it was decided that a special subscription would be raised for these two men. As a result, Cobden received £75,000, of which £40,000 had to go to paying business debts that Cobden had incurred as a result of his preoccupation with the league, and Bright received approximately £5,000.

The Anti-Corn Law League had a profound influence on advancing the cause of free trade in Great Britain. To this day, the league remains a splendid, but all too rare, example of how uncompromising dedication to a single, comprehensible objective, combined with sheer hard work and innovative propagandizing, can successfully accomplish that goal through peaceful means.

Cobden also was committed to constitutional reform; to the disestablishment of state churches; and to a series of social reforms, including the repeal of the primogeniture laws, entails in land, the game laws; and, most important, the abolition of slavery. He was a firm exponent of fiscal retrenchment and tax reform. He was a forceful proponent of universal free trade and, while in Parliament, negotiated the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860 with France. He also vigorously campaigned on behalf of international arbitration and disarmament and was an outspoken opponent of foreign adventurism and war.

Cobden and Bright devoted a great part of their public lives to the cause of international peace, but with much less success than attended their campaign to repeal the Corn Laws. They defied establishment and popular opinion on several occasions, most famously when they opposed British involvement in the Crimean War (1854–1856). They hated both the immoral loss of human life and the onerous financial burden entailed by Great Britain’s unnecessary decision to support the Ottoman Empire against Russia.

Cobden, who was firmly committed to the liberal ideal, used his understanding of how the political process worked inside and outside of Parliament to secure reforms based on the principles he embraced. From all accounts, his private and public life exemplified the highest standard of personal morality. He also was a public benefactor without equal. British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone said of Cobden: “I do not know that I have ever seen in public life a character more truly simple, noble, and unselfish.”

 

Further Readings

Cobden, Richard. The Political Writings of Richard Cobden. 2 vols. Naomi Churgin Miller, ed. New York: Garland, 1973.

Edsalls, Nicholas C. Richard Cobden: Independent Radical. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Hindes, Wendy. Richard Cobden: A Victorian Outsider. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Hirst, Francis Wrigley, ed. Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School. New York: A.M. Kelly, 1968.

McCord, Norman. The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838–1846. London: Allen & Unwin, 1968.

Pick, Daniel. “Cobden’s Critique of War.” War Machine: The Rationalization of Slaughter in the Modern Age. Daniel Pick, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Originally published .